Forgetfulness by Ward Just


My third book by Ward Just is a more complicated one for me.  When it began, I thought it was a straightforward, plot-driven story, but I am left unsure that I have all the implications.  Well, I should say, I’m sure I don’t have all the implications, and am not at all sure I can articulate the underlying message.  Here we go:  The forgetfulness of the title is the diminution of focus, determination, or will, into a more thoughtful nuanced take.  Maybe that’s it.  The wife of the main character (a painter) goes off on a walk in the mountains while her husband yuks it up with his buddies.  It should be said she was in a bit of a snit.  She falls and breaks her ankle and is found by four terrorists (this is in the Pyrenees) who with great difficulty, carry her on a stretcher for hours.  Finally, they realize they cannot take her to safety and complete their mission.  They leave for her for a time until she is nearly dead from the cold, then slit her throat.  Friends of the husband, with their spy world connections, find the terrorists and eventually the husband watches them being tortured and questioned, and questions the leader himself who gives him the full story.  The husband considers killing him on the spot and doesn’t.  He always expresses misgivings about retribution and is able to forget, or lose focus.  His character contrasts with the determination and focus of his spy world friends.  His guilt for not realizing something was wrong, and looking for his wife sooner is in the more nuanced picture. 

In a subplot, he tells of his friendship with a recently deceased English neighbor in the tiny French village where they lived.  This man walked away from the worst day of World War I; was he a victim or a deserter?  He contacted his brother to demand his share of the family fortune to remain "dead."  His very angry American granddaughter showed up after his death, as he left her his house.   To her he was a deserter, responsible for the misfortunes of the family for generations after him.   She demands to know the story from the painter, a man who has just lost his wife, and he counsels that there is a statute of limitations on everything. 

As in other Ward Just books, place is important.  The painter and his spy friends all came from a small town in Wisconsin which they left early in their lives.  They could never go back, but are drawn to it and they acknowledge its power in their lives.  I was reminded of An Unfinished Season when the painter describes the conversation with his father when he told him he was leaving college to become a painter.

I will end by describing an event that seemed portentous, but mystified me.  Near the end of the book, the painter is in the village pub and is urged first to hurry home before the storm hits, then urged to stay in the village.  He heads out for the 2 mile walk and nearly dies in the wind and rainstorm.  He barely manages to make it home; it was so bad that the floor inside has an inch of water.  But he survives.  Humm.  Can’t get anywhere with that.

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